House committee told to limit EtO statewide

Industry experts compare carcinogen to everyday food treatments for apples, pears, red meat

State Rep. Rita Mayfield and Gail Charnley talk after they clashed during Thursday’s House committee hearing on ethylene oxide. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

State Rep. Rita Mayfield and Gail Charnley talk after they clashed during Thursday’s House committee hearing on ethylene oxide. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Suburban Chicago residents and legislators told a House committee Thursday that Illinois needs new laws to stop emissions of carcinogenic ethylene oxide statewide.

“This is what we want, and this is what we need,” said Margaret Donnell of the grassroots group Stop Sterigenics in testifying in favor of two House bills: one of which would phase out carcinogenic EtO entirely in its use in hospitals and in sterilization, another which would give home-rule towns and cities the right to ban EtO locally. They were the primary topic of a subject-matter hearing held in the Bilandic Building in downtown Chicago by the House Energy & Environment Committee.

The issue first came to light just over a year ago when a federal agency published a report finding an elevated risk of cancer in the southwest suburbs surrounding the Sterigenics company in Willowbrook and blaming it on emissions of EtO — a report referred to Thursday as a “cancer-cluster study” by House Minority Leader Jim Durkin of nearby Western Springs, sponsor of House Bill 3885 giving home-rule municipalities the right to ban EtO locally.

The concern soon spread to Lake County, where two firms, Medline Industries and Vantage Specialty Chemicals, were known users of EtO, but where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its federal offshoots had not conducted similar studies. Although Sterigenics, which was shut down by the Illinois EPA under Gov. Pritzker a month into his administration, recently announced it would not reopen and would leave the state, Medline and Vantage continue to operate, thus suggesting the General Assembly needs to pass new legislation statewide.

“Companies would be compelled … to be a better corporate citizen,” testified state Sen. John Curran of Downers Grove, who backed both bills. A previous bill passed earlier this summer and signed into law by Gov. Pritzker created “the toughest regulations in the nation and quite possibly in the world” on EtO, Curran said, but it had also cleared a path for Sterigenics to potentially reopen, showing the need for new legislation.

Curran said key to the complementary House Bill 3888 is that it would phase out EtO over several years, but that it would also mandate testing for the carcinogen. “The breakthrough in Willowbrook was the village testing,” he said.

Durkin testified that he himself is a cancer survivor whose district office is a mile from Sterigenics, “so this is a very emotional issue for me and for many people over the last year.”

Lauren Kaeseberg of nearby Darien, a Stop Sterigenics leader, testified that her mother had worked in Willowbrook and died nine years ago at the age of 59 from “environmentally caused cancer.”

“We didn’t know how she got it,” Kaeseberg said. “Now we know.”

“Our communities need action by the General Assembly,” said Tea Tanaka of Stop EtO in Lake County.

Tea Tanaka, Lauren Kaeseberg, and Margaret Donnell prepare to testify before Thursday’s House committee hearing. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Tea Tanaka, Lauren Kaeseberg, and Margaret Donnell prepare to testify before Thursday’s House committee hearing. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

“The governor has shared your frustration,” said Deputy Gov. Christian Mitchell. “That is why we sealed Sterigenics in the first place.”

He said the administration supports the new bills and pledged, “The governor would be pleased to sign either or both of these measures into law.” He pushed for their passage during the fall veto session later this month.

Mitchell charged, however, “The U.S. EPA has dropped the ball” on setting new legal limits on EtO since it was formally declared a carcinogen in the waning months of the Obama administration late in 2016.

“U.S. EPA is years behind,” said IEPA Director John Kim, and is relying on “an outdated federal standard” on EtO. Under President Trump, “they don’t feel it’s appropriate for them to take action,” he added. “The state has sort of been left to fend for itself.”

“There is no real red line in the sand,” Tanaka agreed.

Kim said the state agency “continues to engage” Medline and Vantage “to ensure that Illinoisans are as safe and as protected as possible.” He said, pending passage of the new bills, IEPA was focused on limiting EtO emissions to the lowest possible amount.

Yet the IEPA came in for some harsh criticism as well. Calling Kim “a Rauner holdover” from the previous administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner, Donnell said, “The Illinois EPA put corporate interests above public health” in negotiating terms of a possible reopening of Sterigenics.

Mitchell argued that the seal order that shut down EtO operations at Sterigenics “was always under rather unsound legal ground,” and Kim referred to it as “short, immediate-stopgap measures,” intended to shutter the firm until that first bill could be passed earlier this year.

Local residents saved their harshest criticism, however, for a panel of industry lobbyists that testified at the hearing. Calling them “industry shills,” Kaeseberg said, “They have no conscience, don’t be fooled by them, and please follow the money.” She suggested that there were other alternatives to EtO in the sterilization process for medical supplies.

Mark Biel, a lobbyist for the chemical industry, called EtO “the gold standard by which the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) determines whether something is sterile,” adding, “It works 100 percent of the time all of the time.” He argued that the bill passed earlier this year was sufficient to monitor the industry and the new bills would be “moving the goalposts.” He questioned the accuracy of the findings in what Durkin called the “cancer-cluster study.”

So did toxicologists Kimberly White and Gail Charnley, who testified on behalf of the industry. “There are potentially many causes of cancer,” White said.

“You can’t connect it to ethylene oxide in particular,” Charnley said, charging the report was based on “worst-case estimates” and that heightened federal concerns about EtO were based on “no new science, just new math.”

State Rep. Daniel Didech of Buffalo Grove was incredulous at that, saying, “It’s a credibility issue” and that it strained belief to suggest that the Trump administration, which had placed former anti-EPA Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and now former coal-industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler in charge of the agency, would be overly cautious in setting EtO standards.

It should be noted that, according to federal documents online, just a few weeks into the Trump administration, White offered testimony to a U.S. House committee on the subject of “Making EPA Great Again.”

“I don’t think the weight of the evidence we have now shows a direct correlation,” White added. She drew parallels with common, everyday food treatments for apples, pears, and red meat. “There are lots of things we know are toxic to humans and we are exposed to every day,” she said. “All substances are toxic under the wrong circumstances.” She compared the alerts to when an idiot light comes on in a car reading, “Check engine,” adding, “It doesn’t mean you should junk the car.”

Charnley said EtO is present in everyone, just as it’s present in car exhaust, and “we evolved making ethylene oxide and our bodies can handle it.”

State Rep. Rita Mayfield of Waukegan confronted them on why EtO emissions had fallen 96 percent after Sterigenics had been shut down, saying, “There’s not that much breathing and farting going on.”

Mayfield, sponsor of HB3888, said her legislation was measured and responsible in addressing Medline and Vantage. “We’re not asking them to close,” she said. “We’re asking them to change.”

Kaeseberg said the communities surrounding Sterigenics had breathed a collective sigh of relief when the firm announced it would not reopen, and she wanted that peace of mind extended to all Illinois residents.

“In a sick way, we’re lucky,” she said. “Why do I get to feel that comfort and Tea doesn’t? Every family deserves to live free of this chemical. It’s not a necessary evil.”